Ten Jazz Singers Who Could Fly You To The Moon

Long flights are always much better with jazz in your iPod. Some airlines have jazz channels but they run out of tunes pretty quick if you’re on a long-haul flight. Here’s what I brought along the last time I flew. (Will confess though, I also watched a few movies) – Radha Thomas

Ella Fitzgerald

Song pick: In My Solitude from the 1976 album Fitzgerald and Pass… Again with Joe Pass on guitar.

Ella Fitzgerald literally rose from nothing to become one of the giants of jazz singing. Her career began with a win at the Apollo Theatre, a singing venue up in Harlem, NY.  And from the early years of her career when she sounded child-like and pure to the middle years when her maturity and finesse was being honed to the end of her 59-year career when each note carried the experience of countless performances and recordings, there is simply no one who can compare with Ella Fitzgerald. Not now, and maybe never.  It’s almost impossible to pick out one song from her limitless repertoire. The quiet beauty of Solitude with the incomparable Joe Pass backing her with a single guitar? The superb scatting in Lady Be Good with the Dizzy Gillespie Band?  Her treatment of Cole Porter – many albums? There is really no ‘bad’ Ella Fitzgerald album or song, but I went with the quiet one.

Julie London

Cry Me A River from the 1955 film The Girl Can’t Help It and Must be Catchin’ from the 1963 album A Touch of Class.

Sexy, sensitive, quiet, bedroomy and perfectly fabulous. I love Julie London’s singing and listen to her all the time. She’s made many albums so if you like jazz, hit that download button and don’t think about it. She hasn’t done anything nasty. Her biggest hit was of course Cry Me A River (I sing it often) which became a million seller way back in 1955… and continues to be popular even now. Recently, I was watching a new TV serial called ‘Panam’ which features the lives of flight attendants back in the 50s (when they were stewardesses) and the song at the end of the pilot episode, ‘Must Be Catchin’ caught my attention. It was a London tune… and it has immediately become part of my repertoire.

Diana Krall

Song pick: Frim Fram Sauce from the 1996 album ‘All for You’

Understated, beautiful, laid back and melodious, I like Krall’s singing because she doesn’t need to yell, scream, hit high notes and quiver to make a point, Maybe that’s why she’s won so many awards and sold so many albums. One of my favourite tunes (and it’s hard to select one because I actually like them all) is Frim Fram Sauce. A quirky and nonsensical blues tune whose lyrics don’t make much sense, but that I love singing as well. Krall is a native of British Columbia in Canada, but went to school at Boston’s famed Berklee college, which has spawned many a fine musician. Krall’s husband is Elvis Costello and they were married in Sir Elton John’s castle.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Song pick: Twisted from the album 1960 album Lambert, Hendricks & Ross! featuring Annie Ross

This has to be one of my really, really favourite tunes. It’s actually a tune by saxophonist Wardell Gray which features a true-blue bebop solo with beautiful turnarounds, and then along came Annie Ross, part of the vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. She wrote quirky and lovable lyrics to the song turning it into a hit. Twisted is not easy to sing and your intonation has to be perfect to carry if off… but if you sing like Ross, there’s no problem at all. L, H & R, made many albums and it’s well worth adding all of them to your portfolio if you like jazz singing. It’s interesting to note that in 1962, Annie Ross left the group to be replaced by a young singer from Sri Lanka named Yolanda Bavan whom I had the pleasure of meeting many years later in NYC. She told me that she got the gig because she had already memorized L, H & R’s entire repertoire and could sit in immediately so the band really didn’t have a choice.

Manhattan Transfer

Song pick: Birdland from the 1979 album Extensions

I loved the original Weather Report tune Birdland from their album Stormy Weather and when Manhattan Transfer presented their vocalese version of it, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Really. It’s group singing at it’s finest. Small wonder they won a Grammy for it. The group is just about as perfect as a bunch of men and women can get while singing together. And their arrangements are involved, intense, complex and they make it all sound so simple.  Manhattan Transfer picks up where Lambert, Hendricks and Ross left off and if you’re a jazz vocals fan, you have to secure every note recorded by these guys.

Stacey Kent

Song pick: In The Still Of The Night from the 1998 album The Tender Trap

The first time I heard Kent, I was a little thrown. Her voice is child-like and sometimes a little reedy. But it takes no more than a few seconds to get hooked and I am one of her staunchest fans. She picks standards that are not always run-of-the-mill and her phrasing and timing is superb.  She’s won awards in England, and Germany and is a Grammy nominee. It’s interesting to note that the lyrics to many of the original material she sings have been composed by the Booker Prize winning Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro.  Kent is American although she hangs around Europe mainly, singing in many languages including French and Portuguese. I love the way she sings e Cole Porter’s In The Still Of The Night; poignant, melodic and passionate.

Karyn Allyson

Song pick: Joy Spring from the 1996 album Collage

I like Karyn Allison. Her background is rock and roll and blues, so she tends to compensate by picking tunes that aren’t traditional singer’s tunes like Moanin’ and Joy Spring and Jordu which are tunes instrumentalists like to solo on. She’s been nominated for Grammys (hasn’t won yet) but that is just a matter of time I feel. Her singing is earthy, emotional and controlled.  Like many contemporary singers, she sings with ease in many languages such as French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish.

Cassandra Wilson

Song pick: Let’s Face The Music And Dance from the 1995 album Song Book

I’d play this tune often on my radio show in Bangalore and listeners often commented on the sexiness of Wilson’s treatment. She’s beautiful to look at and sings with the kind of low, throaty growl and abandon that can be scary if you’re not really into jazz and exhilarating if you are. The people at the Grammy’s have awarded her twice.  In 2001, Time magazine called her America’s best singer and Downbeat has repeatedly acknowledged Wilson. From straight ahead jazz, improvisations on pop tunes like the Monkees’ hit Last Train To Clarkesville, Wilson continues to explore the boundaries of what we call jazz while letting the world know that it’s possible to entertain audiences without a 5 octave range.

Dianne Reeves

Song pick: Fascinating Rhythm from the 2001 album The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan

It was her unusual, bold and non-traditional treatment of the old jazz standard Fascinating Rhythm that drew me to Dianne Reeves first. I had heard her other material before, but wasn’t immediately drawn to it. I guess I like the subtle more than the strong. But I just loved this tune. Reeves’ talent is unmistakable and her pedigree impressive.  She has won 4 Grammys and her cousin is George Duke.  And she’s made a lot of albums.  Lovely voice, great range and perfect singing.

Sachal Vasandani

Song pick: A Flower is a Lovesome Thing from the 2007 album Eyes Wide Open

Brand new singer on the jazz scene… clearly he’s of Indian origin, which made me happy. But I must tell you,  he sounds like an old jazz soul with no hint of curry (read that to mean fusion).  That could be because he was born and raised in Chicago and studied both jazz and western classical music at the University of Michigan. I’ve been listening to him on my new-found Jazz Radio app on my iPhone and love his treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.’ Vasandani was a semi-finalist in the 2004 Thelonious Monk Institute Competition, a prestigious accomplishment and from there, I guess there’s no looking back for him. He gigs in New York so if you’re on a business trip there check him out.

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